Maasai - The Eunoto Ceremony

My thanks and respect go to inveterate traveller Jim Damico for permission to use extracts from his 1987 diary, as well as his images of the ceremony. The diary entries and images remain his copyright. You can find the full version on A Midwestern Guy Goes to Africa; the main page of his website, with loads more photos and amusing accounts of other journeys, is at

Eunoto Ceremony

The Eunoto ceremony marks the end of one age-set's period of active junior warriorhood, and their promotion as senior warriors (sometimes called junior elders). For those involved, the ceremony is the beginning of their acceptance into full adult life, which will culminate - if they live long enough - in their respected status as senior elders. Completion of the ceremony entitles them to take wives and raise families, although for many it also marks the end of the most privileged time of lives.
   In order to "open the way" for the initiation of the new senior warrior age-set, a young warrior of repute with leadership qualities and no physical blemish is chosen. After being approved by the laibon (ritual leader), a bullock is slaughtered and the chosen leader (the olotuno) drinks the blood from the animal's neck first.
   The eunoto's four days of rituals takes place in the enkang o sinkira, an enclosure and ceremonial hut built specifically for the occasion. Each warrior has his head shaved by his mother while sitting on the same cowhide on which he was circumcised, and his head is then decorated. I read somewhere that the retiring warriors often weep and tremble when their hair is cut: the moran hates to lose his freedom and sense of adventure, and the fear and respect that he more basically instils. The long hair is the symbol of this. He feels that he had lost a part of himself, and that freedom is no longer as unbounded as it was. He has grown up.
   At the end of the ceremony, the olotuno may select any girl he chooses for his wife, and after undergoing further rituals, the restrictions on drinking milk and eating meat - which applied throughout his junior warriorhood - are finally lifted.

Maasai warriors
Warriors wearing
lion mane head dresses

Junior warriors dancing

The warriors join the procession

Three friends

The following is from Jim Damico's diary, and aptly describes the clash between the old and new, the modern and the traditional ways:

12 July, 1987 - campsite near Entesekera

We left camp early this morning so we wouldn't miss anything. We arrived as before but this time the girls were left alone. The morani were dressed in short togas, their hair braided and red ochre painted on everything. They all had some beaded jewellery and wooden spears. Everyone was dressed in red except one very energetic little boy dressed in black. It was as if he was the court jester of the tribe. Something about his eyes said he was sick, but the Maasai avoided him as if he was "unclean." There were a lot of morani dancing. They would jump in pairs or alone while the group chanted and bounced along. Then they would stop for a second and one moran would sing a verse.

At first I just didn't feel right about taking pictures. We were told that some people, especially the old, might be offended. Some thought of cameras as "soul stealers" just like the American Indian. But as others took started to take photographs, it was the morani and children who mobbed us. Not to have us take their picture but to take the pictures themselves. After awhile, one of the chiefs started the morani on a procession around the inside of the ceremonial boma circle. In front were about ten morani who had killed lions with spear and sword. You could tell them by their lion mane headdress. Then came about forty morani with shields. These were the most respected and they were their leaders. The procession moved both inside and outside the circle of bomas.

The bravest forty-nine had their heads shaved the previous night. The procession of some four hundred warriors began the trek down to the river near our camp. There, they were going to paint chalk on their bodies.

Maasai travel from all over the border between Kenya and Tanzania. This event happens only once ever nine or ten years, so we were very lucky to witness it at all. The Maasai have even said that because of pressure from the government, this could be the last big eunoto. Because of the "civilizing" of the Kenya, many of the duties of a warrior would cease to be allowed. Lions were to be protected. Cattle stealing and war on neighbouring tribes would be illegal. And no matter what, it will loose some of its significance.

I just don't think I can convey the intensity of this evening. The morani spent the afternoon down by the river getting painted with white chalk. A cow was slaughtered and cooked. It was to be their last meal together as morani. In the late afternoon the morani started a procession back up to the celebration. They were impressive! Each had different designs painted all over their bodies. They wore only the smallest toga as to expose all the paint. Atop their wooden spears, they had a piece of red cloth, almost like a flag. In the setting red sun, the four hundred strong, flags waving in the breeze, shouted and screamed as they marched.

The procession moved inside the ring of bomas and continued in a circle. They stopped and knelt down. As the kudu horn continued to sound, the morani chanted and bobbed their heads. Then, they stood up in unison, spears held horizontal, as if they were lifting a giant ring. During the procession, I saw one moran with red stripe painted on his chest. Duritu explained that told everyone that the warrior had killed a man as a moran.

A few of us had moved toward the center of the circle to get a better view. Then the morani started to run toward a special boma built in the center of the compound. Inside this boma, reserved for the morani who hadn't broken any of the warrior taboos, were supposed to be gifts, beer, rewards, and even rumored, women. A death curse kept any from entering except the few. They ran around it faster and faster. Then all hell broke loose. The elders started to beat the morani with sticks to chase them away from the boma. Several went into seizures, others walked as if zombies, it was crazy. One moran near me started swinging his spear wildly. Other morani fell to the ground, going into spasms and making wild, scary noises. Somehow my classmates started to regroup and head for the outside of the ceremonial ring of bomas.

Elders took all the spears away from the morani. There was a long and intense discussion between our leaders and the elders. The warriors had asked that the death curse be lifted off of the special boma. Many of the morani taboos do not fit well in "modern" Kenya life for a teenager, especially those attending school. The morani felt they were being punished wrongly because they said that the breaking of the taboos were not their fault. That's when all the chaos started. We were advised by some of the elders to leave and head for our camp before dark. The morani were being sent out to spend the night in the forest as a punishment. Because our truck wouldn't hold everyone, several of us had to walk the three kilometers back to camp.

After the bizarre happenings, our adrenaline and imaginations were at a fever high. We weren't even half way back to camp when it got dark. Even though it was a night of the full moon, it hadn't risen yet. We walked in pitch dark. Daniel's brother, Robert, a junior elder, was our guide and some of us felt, our protector. We passed what sounded like a large group of Maasai women and young girls. I kept hearing "wazungu." They laughed a lot and I had the feeling it was at us.

All of a sudden I was walking alongside a moran. It was so dark I couldn't even see the white shirt of my classmate in front of me. So you could imagine how I felt when the moran appeared. He tried to talk to me but I didn't understand kimaa. Then he held my hand for a few minutes and then let go. I can't say I was scared, but pretty nervous. Later when I told the story, the classmate that walked behind me said he never saw a thing.

20 July, 1987 - campsite near the Ewaso Ngiro River

This morning we had a discussion with a local missionary named Phil. He tried to explain to us the governments position with regards to the Maasai. Kenyan government services completely ignore the area of the country where the Maasai live. Officials in Nairobi refuse to meet with any Maasai who is in traditional dress. "Sheets!" they say.

The government is also interfering with their social structure by dictating that there can not be any more morani. The Eunoto we saw was performed about five years early because of government pressure to reduce the number of warriors. He also shed a little more light on the violent ending of the graduation.

Phil said because so many Maasai boys are going to school while they are also morani, many of the traditional taboos are being ignored. Out of about 500 morani at the ceremony, only about a dozen could say they didn't break any of the morani taboos. But those outside the special boma had decided that the taboos are meaningless now and that all of the morani should be allowed in. That's when the elders stepped up and refused. The battle between the old and traditional and the new and modern.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography